Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Post-Oreskes thoughts

I haven't posted anything here for ages.  But I teach about climate change now (see here), so RRTeaching seemed a better place for this than PPResearch.

Last week Naomi Oreskes gave a public lecture in downtown Vancouver about her research into climate change denial.  This post was originally going to be about what I came away from the talk with, but now it's expanded into a 'Here's what I think about anthropogenic climate change' statement.

So here's what I think:

Almost everyone in North America (and probably much of the rest of the world) falls into one of two camps:
  1. People who aren't doing anything to prevent global warming because they either deny the climate-change science or think technology will save us from its consequences.
  2. People who are taking token actions to prevent global warming, and wringing their hands about the other camp.
 Camp 1: The deniers: Ultimately, people who cast doubt on the science behind climate change (or believe those who do), do so because they don't like the actions that the validity of the science implies.  They may argue that these actions would infringe on personal freedoms, threaten democracy and destroy jobs, but the bottom line is that they don't want to give up the good life that fossil fuels let us all lead.

The techno-solution group: Many people, including some who accept climate-change science, are predicting that the free market will male lifestyle changes unnecessary - that entrepreneurs will develop cheap practical technology that either replaces fossil-fuel energy or removes the unwanted CO2 from the atmosphere.  It could happen, but almost certainly not without nuclear power.

Camp 2: Those of us who accept climate-change science shouldn't feel smug, because we still haven't given up the good life that fossil fuels provide.  Sure we recycle, we occasionally bike or take the bus (if it's not inconvenient), and maybe we drive a hybrid car.  Maybe we vote for candidates who promise to institute a carbon tax.  Maybe we even pay for carbon-offsets when we fly.

But given the massive scope of the problem, these are tokens.  Literally: they mark us as 'good' people, but they have no significant impact on the problem.  We are deluding ourselves when we think that our individual actions will make much difference.  Not even if everyone in developing countries followed our example.  Not even if everyone in the world followed our example.

Some people are doing more:  Some of my UBC colleagues are doing their best to make the issues clear to the public - unfortunately this mostly serves to shift people from Camp 1 to Camp 2.  (I'm doing this in my Human Ecology course.) But some are also working to provide the government with solid advice about the best options.  For one example, see this report: Acting on Climate Change. In principle this could encourage government action that really could make a difference, but in practice I think the obstacles (social, political and especially economic) are too high.

So what do I think is going to happen?

Probably not the worst-case scenario, but a lot worse than the 2 °C people have been hoping for.
The worst-case scenario is that the we don't stop returning fossil-fuel carbon to the atmosphere until we run out of fossil fuels - until we've burned everything that could possibly be extracted and burned.  This would be much worse than the IPCC's worst-case 'business as usual' scenario ('RCP 8.5'), because RCP 8.5 assumes that we decide to leave some fossil fuel unburned. 

Here's a discussion of the burn-everything consequences. Global average temperature would rise by about 16 °C; polar temperatures by about 30 °C.  Much of the planet would be uninhabitable, and much of the rest would not be suitable for growing food.  So we'd be crowded and starve, unless we had already gotten too depressed to reproduce.

Most researchers assume that the short-term effects of increasing CO2 will be sufficiently horrible that governments (?) will impose drastic measures before we run out of fuel.  Maybe, maybe not.
But we're certainly not going to turn things around before we hit a 2 °C increase in global temperature, and probably not until we're well on our way to much higher temperatures.

Take Canada as an example:  We burn a lot of fossil fuel, and not just to keep warm and transport goods across our big cold country. The biggest greenhouse-gas producing category (25%) is production of the oil and natural gas that we sell to others or use ourselves.  (This latest data is 2013.)
And we're likely to keep burning a lot.  The latest report came out in February (Canada's Energy Future 2016; download here).  They conclude:
Total energy use in Canada, which includes energy use in the energy production sector, grows at similar rates in all EF 2016 cases, and GHG emissions related to that energy use will follow similar trends.
They developed energy-use predictions for six different scenarios.  In addition to the 'reference' scenario, they consider the implications of not building any more pipelines, of higher and lower natural-gas prices, and of high and low exports of liquefied natural gas.  Note that these are all market and distribution factors, and that these, not individual behaviours, are what determine how much energy Canada will use in the next 25 years.

Sadly, even market factors don't make much difference.  The different coloured bars below represent energy-use predictions for the different scenarios.  They all predict the same thing - a modest INCREASE in energy use over the next 25 years, a bit higher if natural gas prices are high.
At the Paris conference last fall, our new Liberal government committed to the 'Intended Nationally Determined Contribution' made by the Conservatives last spring,
"Canada intends to achieve an economy-wide target to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 30% below 2005 levels by 2030."
That sounds pretty good (though note that the level we're reducing from has been raised from the 1990 levels originally used).  But it's not where the Energy Report says we're headed.

There's nothing in the government's plans, nor in the behaviour of Canadians, to suggest a different future. ("Spend $300 million on new technology!"  "Have a conference with all the provinces!" "Engage the public!""Include indigenous peoples!")

Of course Canada is only a small player in global emissions, 1.6% of the total for 2011.  But we're supposed to be the good guys, at least now that the Liberals are back in power.  European countries are certainly doing better than us, but I doubt that we'll see any better reductions by the USA, or China, or Russia, or India.

People aren't going to change:  It's a waste of time to bemoan the behaviour of others, or to say that we need to eliminate greed or corruption or self-interest.  Anthropogenic climate change is the Tragedy of the Commons writ on a (literally) global scale.


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